California Public Records Act: What it is, how it works, and why it recently roiled the parent community

A school board candidate’s decision in early September to post emails related to the closure and reopening of schools due to the pandemic sparked anger and confusion among families about the California Public Records Act (CPRA) and how it is supposed to work.

The CPRA is one of the most extensive public records acts in the nation, granting everybody access to almost all of the documents produced by local governments.

The CPRA is guaranteed in the state constitution and is based on the concept that public records belong to the public.

The CPRA was first passed by the legislature and signed by Governor Ronald Reagan in 1968. The intent was to counter government secrecy. In addition to contracts and other official documents, the CPRA also covered communication with local government agencies. The intent was to shed light on who was influencing an agency’s decisions. Whether a political donor or a well-connected developer or even groups of concerned citizens, those contacts had often been hidden from public view.

The CPRA was added to the state constitution in 2004 through Proposition 59. Access to public records in California is now a right, akin to someone’s right to freedom of speech provided by the U.S. Constitution. It is not limited to local residents or citizens – public records requests can be made by anybody.

Piedmont Unified School District Superintendent Randall Booker said fulfilling those records is a normal day-to-day activity for the PUSD.

“As a public institution, we receive Public Record Act requests all the time,” Booker said. “For all kinds of issues, Piedmont residents, people outside of Piedmont. This happens much more often than the public understands.”

The city handles the requests in a similar manner. “We want residents to be able to see their government in action and to be able to see their government records,” Piedmont City Clerk John Tulloch said. He added that often his office will try to get information without having to go through the formality of an official request.

“It is a normal part of doing business at City Hall,” he said. “And the majority of them are things that we can deal with in the informal matter.”

There are several privacy exemptions to the act – certain police records, names of minors, and the like. However, the vast majority of documents are required to be disclosed upon a specific request. Those that are public but contain exempted information – such as a student’s name – must be redacted and then released.

“I would say 95 percent of all correspondence fall into the public domain,” Booker said. “For the most part, we are required to disclose quite a bit.”

A CPRA request recently caused a bit of a kerfuffle in Piedmont when school board candidate Hari Titan asked the PUSD provide emails regarding the closure and reopening of schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The communications were turned over with student names redacted and Titan uploaded them to his website. Some parents claimed their privacy was violated through the release of the emails, although the CPRA is clear that the records are public.

There was also an issue with how the District redacted student names. Booker said the PUSD used a Sharpie to black out student names before re-scanning the documents but it turned out some names were still visible if someone blew up the document to a large enough size.

“What I found out is if you zoom in you can still see some of the names,” Booker said. “We contacted Mr. Titan when this was brought to our attention, we asked if he could pull down these emails so we could re-redact them.”

Booker said Titan immediately took the emails down and later told the PUSD he wasn’t going to post the re-redacted emails.

Booker said the District has tightened up it’s redaction process and will now use the blackout tool in the Adobe software it uses.

“We did the steps we thought were necessary,” he said. “We’ve taken some steps now moving forward in our processes to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

Tulloch said a Sharpie is actually a very secure way to redact information.

“The surest way to redact is a sharpie,” he said. “Sometimes if you are not careful when you’re using the electronic version there’s data there that you can’t see, there’s metadata.”

A bigger issue might be a lack of understanding of what is a public document and the fact that the state of California considers public documents as belonging to the public. That means your letter to the city council or school board with your email or home address on it can be seen by anybody who asks.

“I just don’t believe the public really understands what the laws are regarding a public institution and what we disclose and disseminate,” Booker said. “I can understand where a member of the public sees their email posted on a website and reacts.

“We don’t ask what the recipient will do with the documents. It’s not our business. It’s not our right to know.”

9 thoughts on “California Public Records Act: What it is, how it works, and why it recently roiled the parent community

  1. I understand Titan was legally entitled to request and then post the emails on his website. But doing so without reading them first, which exposed some of our kids’ emails addresses, was sloppy and careless. Why would he post something without reading it first??? Not someone I want on the school board.

  2. The CPRA allows withholding of “Personnel, medical, or similar files, the disclosure of which would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” (Government Code §6254, subd. (c)). The rule covers more than “personnel” files and reaches any information in government records linked to an identified or readily identifiable individual. But it allows withholding only where the person in question has an objectively reasonable expectation of privacy….

    Hari Titan did not immediately remove the offending files from his public facing website. He spent days ignoring parents’ requests to remove their respective correspondence (because of sensitive discussions and medical diagnoses) from his website and then days arguing as to why he was justified in publishing these emails wholesale and refusal to take any responsibility for his bad judgement. His desire to be “transparent” could have been achieved through much less intrusive and offensive means (he refused to compromise by agreeing to aggregate and anonymize the data because it would take too much time). He also stated that he would repost the emails after PUSD re-redacted the emails and told parents to formally withdraw their correspondence to the Board if they didn’t want it posted. After much community outcry did he finally apologize on this parent Facebook group, but it rang hollow as he continued to blame PUSD and deleted his apology and related posts the following day. And this is someone who, not only purports to be a champion of transparency, but also wants to hold an important public office in service of the public.

  3. Digital Safety 101 – Anything that anyone sends out electronically should be considered to be gifted to the public domain unless the document is explicitly protected. Definitely a teachable moment. This might be a good topic for PEF’s Speaker Series as it applies to communities as a whole.

    I send comments to the city and school board as well and I do feel that if the request really was quite literally for anything related to the “closing and reopening of schools”, that a possible legal argument, or reasonable push back from PUSD worth researching, is whether the request was too broad. Quite frankly the school closure and reopening plans have probably touched upon almost everything school-related since March. Maybe PUSD could have informally suggested that Mr. Titan narrow down his request. If Mr. Titan declined, then it would be a clearer indication that he was not necessarily exercising judgment that is in the best interests of our community. I see more than one missed opportunity to avoid the mess that followed.

    I also wish that this article would directly address whether the CPRA allows the publishing of fulfilled records requests and to what extent.

  4. Public data was shared with Piedmont parents, primarily on a Facebook page called Piedmont Parents. Titan says he used settings to prevent Google indexing. The files were huge and the parents who found the unredacted information knew they sent confidential information in school board emails and quickly searched for their own emails to find the problem.

    Unclear how Titan could have read months of emails sent to the board looking for confidential information which was not his focus. Titan is famous for using transparency and data analysis to find important patterns that help a broad constituency of students, parents, or taxpayers.

    The public was in the dark about what information gets redacted. Booker has made it clear that very little information gets redacted and that many people, not just Titan, request those records. It’s a good thing that people are becoming aware of the CPRA process and is helping prevent people from putting information on the public record that they later declare was confidential. It’s also good that the district will now be using Adobe to redact the little information they are legally allowed to redact.

  5. Ethical standards are often higher than legal requirements. Though Mr. Titan’s actions were legal, his judgement was questionable at best and unethical at worst. As a candidate for School Board….he should know better.

  6. “Legal right”… it might have been LEGAL (to request & receive all of the emails; some contained sensitive information… while a student’s name is redacted, it’s my understanding that nothing else is: not the parent’s name, their email address, questions about 504 plans, nor any other information), but it sure WAS NOT RIGHT (for Mr. Titan to then post all of these emails on his website).

  7. I know nothing beyond what the above article states though it appears the criticism should be directed at PUSD and not Mr. Titan. Mr. Titan received the redacted documents from PUSD and when informed that PUSD had not redacted the documents properly, immediately removed them from public view.

    As John Tulloch states, a sharpie is “very secure” and even superior to electronic methods. Evidently PUSD did not use a sharpie properly which is otherwise the “go-to” redaction tool for other public agencies including the City of Piedmont.

  8. Mr. Titan should review the guidelines for a school board member. They are expected to use discretion and good judgment. They are representing children and the sensitivities that surround students and minors. Since we are a very small community, and it’s easy to identify people, this type of sensitive and revealing information should be treated with care and respect. He needs to understand the difference between CAN and SHOULD. These are very stressful times and no child in this community needs to be outed for learning differences or other issues.

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